Conditioned Fear

Antonia Kaczkurkin's dissertation examines the generalization of conditioned fear in veterans with PTSD.

Antonia Kaczkurkin

Antonia Kaczkurkin is currently earning her doctoral degree in the Clinical Science and Psychopathology Research program at the University of Minnesota.

What does not kill you can make you ill A prominent trauma researcher, Tanja Jovanovic, once noted that the familiar adage, "What does not kill you makes you stronger," would be more accurately phrased as "What does not kill you can make you ill." Dr. Jovanovic was referring to the fact that some individuals who experience psychological trauma will go on to develop serious mental health disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a pervasive mental disorder characterized by re-experiencing the traumatic event, increased arousal, and avoidance of stimuli associated with the event to the point of impairing social and occupational functioning.

Our understanding is just beginning
Although PTSD was not formally recognized by the clinical community until 1980, its symptoms have been known and recorded throughout history. Despite the acknowledgement of this disorder for the past 30 years or so, we are just beginning to understand the biological mechanisms that contribute to PTSD symptoms. Understanding the physiological and neurobiological processes that lead to the maintenance of PTSD symptoms is vital to advancing the development of interventions for treating PTSD patients.

Understanding fear
A promising approach to studying PTSD focuses on classical fear-conditioning: a process of associative learning acquired when a neutral object or situation is paired with an unpleasant outcome and, in turn, the neutral stimulus comes to elicit anxiety associated with the anticipation of the unpleasant outcome. Conditioned fear makes intuitive sense when considering PTSD: patients who experience a traumatic event are conditioned to fear objects and situations related to the trauma.

Why some and not others
However, important questions remain such as why some individuals develop PTSD following a traumatic event while others do not. Discovering the answer to this question requires a better understanding of the specific abnormalities in conditioned fear which may represent risk factors for developing this disorder. One abnormality that may be especially relevant to PTSD is the over-generalization of conditioned fear, which is simply the heightened tendency to transfer, or generalize, one's fear to benign objects or situations that resemble features of the traumatic event. This over-generalization is thought to result in the proliferation of trauma cues in the individual's environment that increases the frequency and duration of trauma-related fear responding.

Examining brain processes and fear
Although the neural underpinnings of such generalization of conditioned fear have been studied extensively in rodents, there has been little cross-species translational research exploring this phenomenon in humans. In order to bridge the research on generalization of fear in animals to humans, my dissertation will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the brain processes associated with abnormal generalization of conditioned fear in veterans with PTSD. This work represents a collaborative effort between the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center and I am privileged to work with faculty members Shmuel Lissek and Scott Sponheim on this project.

Because what does not kill you can make you ill, there is a moral imperative to care for those made ill by psychological trauma that was endured in defense of our country. It is my hope that a better neurobiological understanding of the PTSD-relevant abnormalities in generalization of conditioned fear will bring us closer to more effective, brain based treatments for those suffering from the painful psychological consequences of military combat.

Antonia Kaczkurkin is currently earning her doctoral degree in the Clinical Science and Psychopathology Research program at the University of Minnesota. She earned her bachelor's degree in psychology summa cum laude and with honors at the University of Arizona and completed her master's degree at the University of Minnesota. She has been a Diversity of Views and Experiences fellow and a National Science Foundation fellow. If you have any questions, please contact Antonia at



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This page contains a single entry by Colleen Ware published on December 7, 2011 1:13 PM.

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